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The Six Gateways of Knowledge1

Nature volume 29, pages 462465 | Download Citation

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II. THE sense of sight may be compared to the sense of sound in this respect. I spoke of the sense of sound being caused by rapid variations of pressure. I had better particularise and say how rapid must be the alternations from greatest pressure to least, and back to greatest, and how frequently must that period occur, to give us the sound of a musical note. If the barometer varies once a minute you would not perceive that as a musical note. But suppose by any mechanical action in the air, you could cause the barometric pressure—the air pressure—to vary much more rapidly. That change of pressure which the barometer is not quick enough to show to the eye, the ear hears as a musical sound if the period recurs twenty times per second. If it recurs twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty times per second, you hear a low note. If the period is gradually accelerated, you hear the low note gradually rising, becoming higher and higher, more and more acute, and if it gets up to 256 periods per second, we have a certain note called C in the ordinary musical notation. I believe I describe it correctly as the low note C, of the tenor voice—the gravest C that can be made by a flute. The note of a two-foot organ pipe open at both ends has 256 periods per second. Go on higher and higher to 512 periods per second, and you have the C above that—the chief C of the soprano voice. Go above that to 1024, you get an octave higher. You get an octave higher always by doubling the number of vibrations per second, and if you go on till you get up to about 5000 or 6000 or 10,000 periods per second, the note becomes so shrill that it ceases to excite the human ear and you do not hear it any longer. The highest note that can be perceived by the human ear seems to be something like 10,000 periods per second. I say “something like,” because there is no very definite limit. Some ears cease to hear a note becoming shriller and shriller before other ears cease to hear it; and therefore I can only say in a very general way, that something like 10,000 periods per second, is about the shrillest note the human ear is adapted to hear. We may define musical notes, therefore, as changes of pressure of the air, regularly alternating in periods which lie between 20 and 10,000 per second.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/029462b0

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